DPIC Releases 2010 Year End Report

On December 21, the Death Penalty Information Center released its latest report, “The Death Penalty in 2010: Year End Report,” on statistics and trends in capital punishment in the past year.  The report noted there was a 12% decrease in executions in 2010 compared to 2009 and a more than 50% drop compared to 1999. DPIC projected that the number of new death sentences will be 114 for 2010, near last year’s number of 112, which was the lowest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Death sentences declined in all four regions of the country over the past ten years, with a 50 percent decrease nationwide when the current decade is compared to the 1990s.  Only 12 states carried out executions in 2010, mostly in the South, and only seven states carried out more than one execution. Texas led the country with 17 executions, but that was a significant drop from last year.  The number of new death sentences in Texas this year was 8, a dramatic decline from 1999 when 48 people were sentenced to death.  Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 82% of the executions have been in the South. California has not had an execution in almost 5 years, and the same is true for North Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and many other states that rarely carry out the death penalty.  “Whether it’s concerns about the high costs of the death penalty at a time when budgets are being slashed, the risks of executing the innocent, unfairness, or other reasons, the nation continued to move away from the death penalty in 2010,” said Richard Dieter, DPIC’s Executive Director and the report’s author.

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ARBITRARINESS: Jury Deadlocks on Death Penalty for Murder of Police Officer

A capital jury in Philadelphia illustrated the divisiveness and arbitrariness of the death penalty when it could not decide on a sentence for Rasheed Scrugs, who admitted to killing Police Officer John Pawlowski.  The atmosphere in the jury room became "horrible" according to one of the jurors.  Jurors almost immediately reported no chance for a verdict, as deliberations began with seven for life in prison and five for death by lethal injection.  Some jurors reportedly refused to take part in the deliberations by "remaining silent or walking out to the lavatory."  Juror Fred Kiehm described the deliberations as: "Extremely tense... screaming, yelling, at one point I thought someone might break furniture."  Some jurors, Kiehm said, were influenced by one of Scrugs' "mitigating factors" for life in prison: he had four sons whom the jurors did not want to grow up with their father on death row. 

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NEW RESOURCES: “Death Penalty for Female Offenders”

A new report by Victor Streib, Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University, highlights trends in the death penalty regarding female offenders. The report shows that the death penalty in the United States is rarely imposed on women. Of the approximately 8,200 death sentences that have been imposed across the U.S. since 1973, less than 2% have been imposed on female defendants (167 out of 8,292, at the time of the report’s publication). Additionally, only 1% of executions in the modern era (since 1976) have been of women (12 out of 1232). The report also shows that over 50% of women currently on death row were convicted of killing a close family member.  Most women were convicted of killing their husbands or boyfriends, or children close to them. Finally, the study observed that the execution of women accounted for only 0.6% of all executions since the 1900s. When compared to earlier eras in American history, this data indicates that the practice of executing women is rarer than in previous centuries.  Click here for full report.

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Expert Who Predicted "Future Dangerousness" in Texas Death Cases Ruled Unreliable

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals recently held that the methodology used by Dr. Richard Coons to predict the "future dangerousness" of capital defendants was unreliable.  Whether a convicted defendant would be a future danger to society is a crucial question for juries in Texas in choosing between a life or death sentence.  Dr. Coons has testified in over 150 death penalty trials across the state. He admitted in a recent hearing that he had developed his own methodology for assessing future dangerousness, one in which he considers the defendant’s conscience, attitudes toward violence and criminal history. “These factors,” according to the court opinion, “sound like common sense ones that the jury would consider on its own.” Capital defense experts consider this a significant ruling pertaining to expert testimony in death penalty cases. Russ Hunt Jr., who represented the defendant in the case where this ruling was made, said, “If you are going to be an expert, you should have some scientific basis of what you are testifying about.” Hunt continued, “[Coons] basically just says, ‘Trust me. I’m a doctor. I know it when I see it.’” Dr. Coons, a forensic psychiatrist, has recently stopped taking death penalty cases.

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ARBITRARINESS: 10% of Counties Account for All Recent Death Sentences in the U.S.

A recent article in Second Class Justice, a weblog dedicated to addressing unfairness and discrimination in the criminal justice system, highlighted that the death penalty continues to be arbitrarily applied in the United States. Citing figures from the American Judicature Society, author Robert Smith revealed that only 10% of U.S. counties accounted for all of the death sentences imposed between 2004 and 2009, and only 5% of the counties accounted for all death sentences between 2007 and 2009. Even in states that frequently impose the death penalty (such as Texas, Alabama, Florida, California and Oklahoma), only a few counties produce the state’s death sentences.  According to the article, “The murders committed in those counties are no more heinous than murders committed in other counties, nor are the offenders in those counties more incorrigible than those who commit crimes in other counties. Examination of prosecutorial practices demonstrate that some prosecutors seek death in cases in their jurisdictions while other prosecutors in the rest of the state do not seek death for the same – or even more aggravated – murders.”  The article contains a series of slides illustrating the geographical disparities of the death penalty.

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NEW VOICES: North Carolina District Attorney Notes Decline in Death Sentences

North Carolina's News & Observer recently reported on the declining use of the death penalty in the state. North Carolina has over 150 inmates on death row but has not had an execution since 2006. Last month, a jury opted for a sentence of life without parole for Samuel Cooper, who was convicted of five first-degree murders. Jim Woodall, president of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, said this decline points to a climate against trying capital cases. "If you can't get the death penalty in that case, gee, what case are you going to get the death penalty in? You have to have almost the perfect trial for it to be upheld."  The decline of the death penalty in North Carolina follows a nationwide trend and may reflect public reaction to wrongful convictions, racial disparities in sentencing, and geographical differences in seeking the death penalty, all of which have been a factor in the state.  Woodall, who is also the Orange-Chatham district attorney, said it is not clear that leaders still strongly support a death penalty in the state.

"The will of the state is not clear," he said.
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EDITORIAL: Death Penalty "Neither Just Nor Moral"

A recent editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune calls for Utahns and their elected leaders to consider abandoning the death penalty citing that "state-sponsored killing of a human being, no matter how heinous the crime, is permitted by a system that has been proven beyond doubt to be inherently capricious, unfair and shockingly fallible." The editorial also pointed to the declining use of the death penalty nationwide, with an all-time high of 328 death sentences in 1994 compared to 106 death sentences in 2009, a downward trend driven by the amount of inmates who have been freed from death row based on new evidence or recanted witness testimonies. The editorial concludes, "There simply is no denying that our system of capital punishment in the United States is unalterably broken. To continue to adhere to it is to tread beyond the bounds of what constitutes a humane, moral and just society." Read full editorial below.

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STUDIES: Ohio Releases Annual Capital Crimes Report

The Ohio Attorney General's Office recently released its annual Capital Crimes Report, analyzing the state's death penalty cases and death row population. In 2009, there was only one death sentence handed down in Ohio, mirroring a nationwide trend of declining death sentences. This was the fewest death sentences in a year since Ohio reinstated the death penalty.  The report indicated that over half of the current death row population of 160 inmates are African-American (51%), while Caucasians make up roughly 44%. The average age of the death row inmates in Ohio is 45, and they have spent an average of 14 years on death row.  In recent history, the majority of removals from death row have been for reasons other than execution. While there have been 33 executions (now 36) since 1981, 52 inmates received life sentences after appeal and remand, another 11 had their sentences commuted to life by the governor, and 7 were sentenced to life after a mental retardation determination. Another 20 inmates died of natural causes while they were on death row.  View the full report here.

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STUDIES: Death Sentences in California Show Arbitrariness of the System

A new report released by the ACLU of Northern California reveals that only three counties–Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside–accounted for 83% of the state's death sentences in 2009. Los Angeles County, with 13 death sentences, was the leading death penalty county in the entire country last year. According to the report, California, with the largest death row in the country, spends $137 million annually on the death penalty, while the state is cutting back on many vital services. The report also indicated an increase in the Latino population of California's death row in recent years; 50% of the death sentences in 2007 were for Latinos even though they comprised only 36% of the state's population.

The executive summary of the report concluded, "A shift to permanent imprisonment would mean significant savings in a time of fiscal crisis, would eliminate the risk of executing the innocent, and would lead to more consistent policies across all California counties. California is on track to spend $1 billion on the death penalty in the next five years, though even more funds are required to protect the innocent from wrongful conviction and to ensure timely review of lengthy death penalty cases. For all the money dedicated to the death penalty in California, only 1 out of 100 people sentenced to death has actually been executed during the last thirty years."  Click here for the full report.

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STUDIES: High Percentage of Death Sentences in North Carolina Later Deemed Excessive

Most of those originally condemned to death in North Carolina eventually received lesser sentences when their cases were concluded, according to Professor Frank Baumgartner, a researcher at the University of North Carolina.  Many of those sentenced to death received a new trial because their first trial was seriously flawed.  At their subsequent trials, the vast majority were sentenced to a punishment less than death, typically a life sentence. Only about 20% of the cases that were finally resolved resulted in an execution. Baumgartner used information from the state's Department of Corrections to examine what happened to those sentenced to death between 1977 through 2009.  He found that of the 388 people sentenced to death, 43 were executed. Of the remaining cases, 158 were still on death row, 5 had been cleared of their charges, 6 committed suicide, 19 died of natural causes, and 12 are in jail pending a new trial, but no longer on death row.  Of the defendants who received new trials, 130 were sentenced to life, 10 to a sentence less than life, and 5 were found not guilty. Another 5 received commutations to life without parole from the governor.

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